Steven Van Sickle and Steve House established a new route on the dark side of Camp Bird Road this winter in Ouray.
- by Steven van Sickle.
FIRST A SHORT HISTORY- the Skylight area of Camp Bird road in Ouray is one of the most classic alpine cragging areas in North America. It is the place where our heroes and our sport progressed and evolved into what they are today. I think of this often when I climb there. I think of how excited Donald, Lowe, and Breashears were when they first climbed the Skylight. And how it makes perfect sense that Lowe, Fowler and Wilford gravitated to the narrow-ice-line of Bird Brain Boulevard. In the 80's some of the more creative lines like "Snow Blind Friend" and the "Racing Stripes" began to get ticked off by the early explorers. It would only be a matter of time before the more visionary, technical lines on the "dark side" of Camp Bird where climbed.
Enter House, Yurdin, Kennedy, Turner, and Gilmore. Between 2011 and 2013 the five of them established "Goodnight Irene", "Dirty minds", the "House/Kennedy" route, and the desperate test piece "Desperado". These are fantastic contributions to the area; additions that display what the new standard is.
On a fantastically cold and snowy day in November, I was taking a reprieve from ice park labor to go camp birding for bit. In-between attempts on a scratchy roadside project, I received a text from House asking if I was interested in working on dark side project. Does the pope shit in the woods?
The line Steve described is currently mislabeled in Jack Roberts, Colorado ice guide book as "Walk the Line". On the wall to the left of the Ribbon there are two obvious gold stripes that run parallel down the wall. "Desperado" is the left gold stripe, and our project is the right.
We chatted a bit on the phone before our first day of work on the route. We talked about the experience we wanted to create; and how to go about establishing the route. Steve knew the route was going to take bolts, at least to make it reasonable for mortals to climb. He suggested installing bolt anchors on rappel. I offered that “every route deserves a ground up attempt”. In hindsight I now realize that by obliging my idealistic proposal of “only ground up attempts” he would be taking on considerably more risk while leading some of these hard, loose, run out pitches. None the less we went for it ground up.
The first and last of the five pitches are the easiest, though still heads up. After Steve led 100 feet to an appropriate belay ledge; I waited patiently while he hammered in a self-drive bolt with the back of his super light Quantum tech ice tool. I began to follow the mixed groove with pure enjoyment. The climbing, though a bit loose was superb. There isn’t really any way to climb this kind of stuff fast, but I did the best I could. Stemming onto edges where I could find them; swinging into frozen turf when I could spot it. In all the climbing I have done with Steve throughout the Alpine Mentor program I never really have seen him lead much. Usually the mentees are on the sharp end climbing ourselves into holes with the Mentors there if we need them.
Watching Steve climb this stuff really expanded my concept of mixed climbing. He treated his tools like two pitons with handles. Swinging them with no concern into rock, with the hope it might be frozen turf. Placing them into cracks, then beating them in with the other tool to make them secure. Brilliant climbing; in one pitch my arsenal of mixed climbing techniques grew. And though I have experienced it many times now, his confidence and cool brushed off on me a little more.
At the next belay we began to scope the path ahead of us; more loose climbing through the groove with a few cracks for pro. I offered with an apparent lack of confidence to take the lead. “Don’t worry, I got it” Steve appeased. “Yeah you better take it, I think it would be dangerous for me to lead” trying to sound objective about the decision. Steve stepped down and right off the ledge and into the rusty red groove. After a few stemming moves up and into the inexorable, he decided to place a bolt on lead. I can’t recall how long it actually took to place the bolt but I do remember how much work it was. Every five or so whacks with the ultra-light ice tool he would have to climb down from the front point stem to shake out the calves. It took a great amount of effort, especially considering it was the beginning of the pitch and there was still another 30 meters to the next ledge; and plenty of hard climbing to get to it. I followed the pitch with no regret for relinquishing the lead. I arrived at his hand placed two bolt anchor where we fixed ropes, stashed gear and rappelled.
Winter time is pretty busy for anyone who works the climbing scene in Ouray. I was busy getting the Ice Park ready for the annual Ice Fest; so out of the five days of work put into the route I was only able to be there for four. Steve jugged the skinny fixed lines alone one day and threw in a few protection bolts…with the power drill. The next day I went up there we managed to work our way to the base of the “Rusty Cage”, the appropriately named crux pitch. A short San Juan Red chimney capped with a bulging roof. Again we fixed and rapped leaving one more day of work. Nothing worthwhile is easy.
The final day on the route we started early and stormed the wall; it was time to finish. We brought two power drills this time and installed protection bolts on each pitch as we ascended to our high point. At the base of the crux we re-organized and Steve charged the pitch armed to the teeth with rack, bolts and the power drill. Into the rusty cage he went; stemming, chimneying, bolting and pulling his way through and out the roof to the top of the pitch. It was in the bag, the crux behind us and one more pitch to the summit, my pitch.
After a few days of climbing on this vertical frozen choss I began to feel more solid. I was excited to break into new terrain and take us to the chains. Another 20 meters of rock then a snow slope and all we had to do was rap and walk out. I took off from the belay stemming and hooking as delicately as I could manage, constantly sniffing around for elusive pro like a starving dog. I took me a bit of time, but broke through the last of the real climbing and post holed to the summit tree. We rappelled to the base packed up and glissaded down to the parking lot where I had stashed a couple beers in the snow. The Rusty Cage was finished, and I am psyched to contribute to Camp Bird history.